Mkhulu Herbert “Cock London” Shipalana is looking forward to his 108th birthday this year. The 107-year-old senior citizen of Tzaneen in Limpopo says he believes he still have many years to live on earth and so much to offer for the younger generation to learn.
Mkhulu Shipalana, who is the headman of his rural village, Muhlava-Cross outside Tzaneen, is transferring his dancing skills to his village youngsters, both girls and boys.
During matric dances, learners visit his home to practise how to do ballet. At local events like parties and weddings, people invite him for entertainment and he always picks a dancing partner from his students since his dancing wives passed away years ago.
Mkhulu became the first South African black champion of ballet and ballroom dance from 1937 to1957. He was also one of the best dressers at the time. He received recognition for his moves and style.
Mkhulu said he had travelled as far as England and other Western countries during his hey day, showcasing his dancing skills and participating in competitions with the world champions of the time.
He worked as both a clothing model for the Oppenheimer’s stores across the country and internationally. He was also their kitchen helper in their residential house in Johannesburg from his 20s until his 50s.
107-year-old Mkhulu Shipalana tells how his dancing career started and how he ended up in Johannesburg as a rural boy from deep Limpopo.
He said, “It was after completing my standard one studies (now grade three) in the village at the age of 25 that I decided to travel to Johannesburg, just like other village young men, to look for a job.
“At 29 I got a job as the Oppenheimer’s family kitchen ‘boy’ in 1933. In Johannesburg, I found two of my village homeboys who taught me how to dance, but unlike them, I decided to take it further and enter competitions locally, after realising that I was mastering ballroom better than many.”
He continued, “I competed locally and international. The Oppenheimers bought me clothes and assisted me with flight tickets overseas where I competed with the best in the world.”
Mkhulu Shipalana said it was not easy as a black man to participate in some international competitions including flying to Western countries at the time, but the Oppenheimers assisted him achieve his goals and fulfill his dreams.
As he became a responsible adult, Mkhulu Shipalana married two wives and had his German live-in white woman who was also there for him through thick and thin — even though at the time dating a white woman as a black man was treated as crime.
Mkhulu Shipalana said he only returned back home, Limpopo, to take over the rein from his parents and become the traditional leader of his Muhlava-Cross Village, according to his family bloodline.
His Gauteng partner Zelda, went back home in Germany while Mkhulu Shipalana remained with his two wives.
A few years ago, his two wives died at the age of 93, leaving him a widow.
“I fathered 10 children with both my wives” he said.
Mkhulu Shipalana admits that he misses his late wives and the lonely life is killing him, but he will never marry again because women come with responsibilities and problems.
Mkhulu Shipalana says he eats pap once a month, loves spaghetti and vegetables. He advises youth to stay away from too much promiscuity because it causes early death.
One of his students, 29-year-old Conference Shipalana (not related) from Muhlava-Village said she started attending Mkhulu’s dancing classes in 2013. Confidence didn’t only learn ballet from his teacher, but also learnt cooking. Today, Confidence is a professional chef and dancer.